Last night President Barack Obama addressed the nation, explaining his plan to degrade and defeat the Islamic State. I liked much of what I heard, with the “better late than never” caveat, but I long ago grew skeptical of Obama’s speeches, which often over-promise and under-deliver, so I will be suitably impressed if this plan is actually carried out. I’m not convinced that the suggested counterterrorism templates of Somalia and Yemen are ideal for employment in this case, but at this point any bias for presidential action against the murderous Islamic State is welcome.
We already have the nay-sayers, complaining about the lack of an “exit strategy,” as well as bellowing from George W. Bush-era strategists who, having failed to make their counterinsurgency dreams come true in Iraq the last time, are determined to harass President Obama until he makes the same mistakes. Fortunately, he will not, and the potshots of yesterday’s soi-disant war-makers can be ignored.
I recently explained what a successful strategy to defeat the Islamic State should look like, involving the aggressive application of U.S. and Allied airpower in combination with local proxies on the ground. This approach is attritional — there will be no “big wins” in this fight — and imperfect, but it is the only practical strategy at present. Putting large numbers of American “boots on the ground” in Iraq to defeat an uprising would be a fool’s errand now (it always was, but that’s another story). That said, the addition of superb American Special Operations Forces, the world’s most lethal covert killers, to this strike package will degrade the Islamic State’s military capacity over time, meaning years not months, and will lead to its ultimate defeat in the Middle East. It remains to be seen if Obama will actually do this, but the path to victory is clear for those inside the Beltway who wish to find it.
I also advised Washington, DC, to get serious about the jihadist threat in other ways, such as dropping security-as-theater and dealing with real threats in a straightforward and adult manner. This, alas, seems unlikely to happen in this administration — though, to be fair, it didn’t happen under Obama’s predecessor either (indeed, the current occupant of the White House has continued, not created, most of this silliness). Institutionalized escapism has become a fully bipartisan American political trait, with baleful consequences for our national security and much beyond.
Nevertheless, it ought to be made clear that the Islamic State threat in Iraq and Syria is ultimately manageable as long as the United States is willing to employ persistent force in combination with partners. If we fail to do so, others — meaning above all Iran — are far less squeamish than we are in such affairs, and will annihilate Salafi jihadists in their region, along with lots of civilians, if we refuse battle. The Pasdaran, Iran’s feared Revolutionary Guards Corps, is not encumbered, as Western militaries are, by platoons of lawyers and restrictive Rules of Engagement. We may not like the consequences of Tehran taking the lead in this struggle, however.
The real threat presented by the Islamic State is to the West itself, thanks to the vast and unprecedented numbers of Westerners who have joined the jihad in Iraq and Syria. Even top-notch European security services are already overwhelmed by the size and scope of this threat, with hundreds of European jihadists returning home every month, fresh from battle on behalf of the Islamic State, and ready to cause mayhem and recruit others for the jihad.
What, then, is to be done? What does strategic victory over Salafi jihadists look like? I hinted here:
The military defeat of the Islamic State by Western airpower and commandos, aided by local proxies, will set the stage for the strategic defeat of their movement. What must follow is a version of what I term Special War, tailored for counterterrorism, combining offensive counterintelligence, denial and deception, and long-term manipulation of the jihadists leading to their collapse and self-immolation.
To vanquish the Salafi jihad in the West, where the Islamic State wishes to perpetrate acts of terror on a scale even Osama bin Laden never attempted, its infrastructure in Europe and beyond must be put out of business. This growing cadre of extremists among us in the West, what I term the Sixth Column, actually is comparatively easy to defeat, since their skills in counterintelligence and operational security — the vital tools of any successful terrorist group — are customarily lacking, indeed often laughably weak. Although they are paranoid about spies in their midst, which constitutes a critical weakness for them, Salafi jihadists (unlike, for instance, Iranian-trained Hizballah) are seldom adept at rooting them out effectively.
Taking a page from the Russians, who are masters of this dark art, this is where a counterterrorism strategy based on provocation is needed. It is not difficult to cause terrorists, particularly inexperienced ones longer on radical talk than effective action, to do self-defeating things, thereby discrediting their virulent message. It is not necessary to perpetrate “false flag” terrorism to defeat the terrorists — which, although highly successful in many cases, is something which no law-based democracy could countenance. Instead, through careful application of offensive counterintelligence coupled with denial and deception, in a patient and holistic manner, Western states together can undo the Salafi jihad movement in the West before it grows unmanageably dangerous.
This would be simply a 21st century version of the Second World War’s British Double-Cross System after which this blog is named: employing multidisciplinary counterintelligence, aggressively applied in a strategic manner, to gain control of the enemy’s intelligence apparatus and thereby blind him and render him vulnerable to mistakes, confusion, and self-deception.
Western security services actually have considerable experience with such messy matters more recently than the Second World War. The British managed a small-scale version of this in Northern Ireland, leading to the ultimate defeat of the IRA in any military sense by the early 1990s, thereby paving the way for long-term peace in that troubled province. In Germany today, the Neo-Nazi movement is so thoroughly swiss-cheesed with government agents, at the highest levels, as to be more or less an appendage of the domestic security service. America is no slouch in this shadowy department either. Hoover’s FBI in the 1960s and early 1970s did a commendable job with its Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in disabling far-left and far-right groups in a comprehensive manner without killing anyone. (I know the mere mention of COINTELPRO brings nostalgics on the Left into a lather; I notice they object less when the identical offensive counterintelligence techniques, applied by the FBI, broke the back of the Ku Klux Klan.)
The issue is will more than capability. If we are not willing to apply non-lethal counterintelligence techniques against the Islamic State, which is vastly more dangerous than the IRA, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, or the KKK, we may wish to consider giving up now. Applying offensive counterintelligence in a strategy based on penetration and provocation is a messy business, and there will be mistakes, but it is not based on killing, neither does it involve invading other people’s countries, much less occupying them.
Assassination is a legitimate technique against virulent terrorists, but it is a dangerous tool that must be applied carefully; it can be overused as well as misused, with bad consequences for any democracy. Moreover, provocation done right leads terrorists to kill each other, rather than innocent people. Every hour Salafi jihadists spend trying to detect moles in their ranks is an hour they are not building bombs, spreading hate, and learning to fly airliners. Offensive counterintelligence, strategically applied, is highly effective at growing lethal paranoia in the minds of the already pretty paranoid.
We need not reinvent the wheel here. The implosion of the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) offers an ideal template. Back in the mid-1980s, the ANO was one of the world’s most feared terrorist organizations, responsible for murder and mayhem across Europe and the Middle East, including the deaths of several Americans. Abu Nidal had been thrown out of Arafat’s PLO for his violent madness, becoming the world’s arch-terrorist during the mid-Reagan years. (Providing the spark for Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon was one of his more consequential terrorist acts.) Then, suddenly, he disappeared from the radar and went Elvis.
What happened was Abu Nidal killed off his own organization. A long-term deception operation by several intelligence services (including American), working together, convinced the already half-mad Abu Nidal that his group was swarming with spies and traitors. Instead of finding these (mostly mythical) moles, Abu Nidal decided to basically kill everyone. Over a few months in 1987-88, he unleashed his fearsome security force against his own people, murdering about 600 ANO members, many of them tortured to death in a medieval fashion. Some 170 terrorists were murdered in a single terrible night. With half the group dead and the other half terrified and demoralized, Abu Nidal fled to Baghdad with the remnants of the ANO, under Saddam Hussein’s protection, where they remained until the Americans arrived in the spring of 2003. (U.S. intelligence very much wanted to find Abu Nidal, but it turned out he was dead, ostensibly after having shot himself….several times.)
The Islamic State represents a far more serious and persistent threat to the West than any Palestinian terrorists ever did, and they merit at least as tenacious and cunning counterterrorism techniques applied against them as were used against the ANO. There is considerable false morality at work if we are willing to use drones to kill thousands of terrorists — and along with them hundreds of innocents from “collateral damage” — not to mention occupying countries for years with awful humanitarian consequences, but we are unwilling to wage Special War, which is far less expensive in blood, treasure, and morality.
But will does not represent the only challenge. There are bureaucratic issues at play as well, as there always are in the real world of espionage, which day-to-day has a lot more to do with jockeying for institutional influence, budgetary cat-fights, and endless PowerPoint presentations than actual spying. In the first place, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is not conditioned to think in strategic terms; by its very nature it’s about tactics, not the big picture. Therefore it may be necessary to create a new organization — small, select, elite, and very secretive — to wage Special War against terrorists (and against troublesome states like Russia too: the counterintelligence methods employed are more or less identical against both state and non-state actors) that can think and act strategically, not just tactically.
Over a decade ago I briefed this concept in classified detail to IC and DOD seniors and was told it was “impossible” — they meant bureaucratically of course. When DC rice bowls win, so do the terrorists. In 1942, FDR created the shadowy Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA — over the strenuous objection of the Army, the Navy, and the FBI, who all (rightly) saw their secret rice bowls getting dented — with a pen-stroke, and there is no reason something similar cannot be done today by any president, if there exists the will to do so.
There is also the touchy matter of keeping secrets. Simply put, if we cannot keep Special War out of the newspapers, there is no point in doing it. Beyond the issue of leaks, which all White Houses of late have been prone to, the Snowden disaster raises troubling questions about the ability of the IC and DOD to protect its most cherished secrets. Until Washington, DC, can get serious about security clearances and merely defensive counterintelligence, it would be a mistake to embark on any shadowy offensive counterintelligence campaign against the Islamic State, which must be kept secret for decades to be effective.
Seriousness, then, is the real issue. If the West wants to win this war, it will. We cannot lose to a cabal of neo-medieval barbarians, we can only defeat ourselves. The Islamic State is murderous and fanatical, but not yet accomplished in international terrorism. It is imperative that we defeat them before they learn those deadly skills and apply them against our homelands, as they ardently wish to. Today, the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the day that opened the new era of Western counterterrorism, it is high time, at last, to seriously start thinking strategically — not just tactically — about victory over Salafi jihadism and how to achieve it.